'Defund Police' Means Fix Community Problems, Not 'Let The Joker Run Gotham'
Minneapolis's City Council made some huge news yesterday when the majority of council members signed on to a pledge to "begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department." The agreement wasn't quite as formal as passing a new city law, but it's the first step in what could become a serious transformation of city services and public safety. And no, it doesn't mean that some morning next week the city will wake up with no cops to protect them from evildoers, despite how Donald Trump and the usual rightwing liars enjoy depicting it. The council members said in a written statement,
We recognize that we don't have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but our community does. We're committed to engaging with every willing community member in the City of Minneapolis over the next year to identify what safety looks like for you.
Nine of the council's 13 members agree that the city's police department "cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions," as the statement said, so it has to be scrapped and replaced by "a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis." One which may or may not include cars with flashing lights and uniformed officers with guns. What the hell would that look like? The City Council hasn't decided yet, but again, the MPD stationery won't head to the recycling bin until there's a better system in place. So let's look at what "abolish/defund the police" might involve.
As we've said — but which we'll need to repeat since Donald Trump is now running on the fake claim — nobody's calling for eliminating police departments and calling it a day. Instead, as this overview by the Guardian explains, "defund the police" is shorthand for a variety of proposals, some more radical than others, but all of them aimed at one goal: shifting funds from policing to social services that will have a greater effect in reducing crime than sending out cops to bust heads. If we do have police forces, then let them deal with violent crime, but if someone is addicted to drugs, let's get them into medically supported treatment. If someone's mentally ill, lets send mental health professionals, and more to the point, let's get services to people to before someone's overdosing, before they're putting themselves or others in danger.
Even police have complained that, over the past few decades, they've been asked to deal with a lot of stuff that has little to do with law enforcement. Great — let's shift police budgets for social problems to social services. Funny, police may resent having to deal with stuff they consider not-crimefighting, but darned if they like the idea of department money going to agencies that CAN address that stuff, by investing in education, housing, jobs, community health, drug courts (or just plain on-demand treatment), gang-intervention programs, and the like.
In the name of "protecting us," police budgets keep expanding, even as crime continues a decades-long decline. For instance, in Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti announced last week he would freeze the police budget at current levels instead of increasing it, the law enforcement budget accounts for half the city's spending. Alex Vitale, author of The End Of Policing, the go-to book on defunding police, likes to point out that New York City's police budget, the nation's largest at $6 billion a year, is "larger than the GDP of 50 countries around the world."
But wait, if we take even a single dollar away from the Thin-Skinned Blue Line, won't violent crime run rampant? Probably not! For one thing, as abolition groups point out,
the vast majority of police work has nothing to do with responding to or preventing violence, [and] police have a terrible track record of solving murders or handling rape and domestic violence.
For that matter, the Guardian notes, reduced policing can mean reduced crime, especially when the emphasis is already on enforcing "broken windows" stuff that just manufactures minor crimes without having any noticeable effect on the serious stuff.
In 2014 and 2015, New York officers staged a "slowdown" to protest the mayor, arguing that if they did less police work, the city would be less safe. But the opposite turned out to be true. When the officers took a break from "broken windows policing", meaning targeting low-level offenses, there was a drop in crime. Researchers posited that aggressive policing on the streets for petty matters can ultimately cause social disruption and lead to more crime. Policing that punishes poverty, such as hefty traffic tickets and debts, can also create conditions where crime is more likely. When New York ended "stop and frisk", crime did not rise.
The police union in Minneapolis is already threatening to stage work slowdowns in response to the City Council's action, a tactic it's used many times in the past in response to even modest reforms. As Yr Wonkette noted when the head of the LAPD police union made similar rumblings following Garcetti's budget announcement, that's not policing, that's a shakedown racket.
The nearly two weeks of demonstrations since Georg Floyd's killing, followed by police violence that escalates public anger and sparks more riots, may actually be making the strongest case possible for changing how policing is done, and not merely surface level reforms. Vitale points out that in the Bay Area, there were radically different approaches to the demonstrations:
In San Francisco, there was a zero-tolerance attitude about the curfew, and folks who were resisting it were immediately subjected to arrest and use of force. But in Oakland, across the Bay, the police took a very different attitude. Their view was, as long as the protests remain peaceful, we're happy to just facilitate it. It's not really a threat to public order if people are not breaking into things and committing acts of violence. So let's try to preserve the peaceful character of this, rather than having it devolve into tear gas and street fighting.
Weirdly, Oakland is still standing! And without brutalizing people!
Maybe liberals should work on taking a cue from Frank Luntz, and start emphasizing the positive side of shifting the burden of dealing with "crimes of poverty" to agencies and institutions that can really deal with them. Like for instance the phrase "shifting the burden" itself. Tell cops they won't have to be social workers because we're really going to have more social workers. We dunno, maybe something like "Let law enforcement do law enforcement"? (With a bigass asterisk explaining that choking people to death is not law enforcement, it's murder).
And now, Minneapolis is starting to look at what a "police-free future" might look like. That's likely to be more an aspiration than a reality, but a future where cops are only used for really dealing with serious crime doesn't seem like a pipe dream.
[Star-Tribune / Guardian / WaPo / Atlantic / The End of Policing / Image: Screenshot from video by Philip Lewis on Twitter]
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.